Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Preview: No. 20 Notre Dame at Virginia Tech

Irish again in underdog role despite 4-0 league start.

GAME NO. 18: NO. 20 NOTRE DAME (15-2; 4-0) AT VIRGINIA TECH (13-3; 2-2)

-- Date: January 14, 2017
-- Place: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.
-- Time: 2:00 pm (ET)
-- TV: ACC Network/WMYS (Local)
-- Opponent Nickname: Hokies
-- Head coach: Buzz Williams (197-124; 44-40 at Va. Tech)
-- Location: Blacksburg, Va.
-- 2015-16 record: (20-15; 10-8)
-- Point spread: Virginia Tech is favored by 2.5

UNCHARTERED TERRITORY

Notre Dame’s 4-0 start in league action is a program first. A victory today would move Mike Brey’s Irish to 3-0 on the road in conference play, a start realized previously by Brey’s first Elite 8 squad, the 2014-15 Irish that began 4-0 in its road tilts en route to a program-best 7-2 road mark and 14-4 conference finish.

Familiarity will be a factor today Saturday in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams has squared off vs. Brey’s Irish on nine occasions (winning three) as the headman at Marquette and in the last three seasons for the Hokies (0-3).

Williams’ crew is led by senior forward Zack LeDay (16.6 points, 7.3 boards, 52.5%) and junior Ahmed Hill (15.1 ppg., 45.2% 3-pt.). LeDay pumped in 22 points on just 11 field goal attempts in an 83-81 loss last year in South Bend.

Hill, who sat out last season due to injury (patella tendon), has hit for double digits in eight consecutive contests while collecting nearly five rebounds per game in that span from the guard position. Hill enters the contest with confidence, making good on 24 of his 52 offerings from long range (46.1%) over the last eight outings.

Virginia Tech ranks 19th nationally in three-point field goal percentage (39.9%) and is the nation’s 41st most efficient offense according to Kenpom.com. Notre Dame ranks 9th in that regard.

Defensively, the Irish will be challenged to contain six-foot six-inch sophomore guard Chris Clarke (12.3 ppg., 7.6 boards). Like Hill, Clarke has scored in double digits in eight straight while grabbing 60 rebounds in that span. He registered a triple-double (13-12-10) in mid-December and at one point connected on 30 of 40 field goal attempts over a five game span.

Justin Robinson (10.8 ppg.), Seth Allen (10.7), and Justin Biggs (8.6) round out Williams’ guard-heavy rotation.

“OVERRATED” NO LONGER

Long a proponent of extended minutes for his starting five, Mike Brey often mused, “bench scoring is the most overrated stat in basketball.”

He’ll likely sing a different tune if the topic is broached again this winter as his three-man bench brigade of Rex Pflueger (24 minutes per game in ACC play), T.J. Gibbs (40 assists vs. 10 turnovers on the season), and Austin Torres (14 points in 12 aggregate minutes in wins over Louisville and Miami) has proved to be a critical component in the team’s 4-0 league start.

With a posted over/under (total score) of 156, mixing and matching personnel will likely be the order of the day on both sidelines in Blacksburg as Brey and Williams pit their gaggle of swingmen against each other in what will doubtless be a high-scoring affair.

The Irish guard tandem of Steve Vasturia and Matt Farrell has been outstanding in ACC outings. In addition to their publicized late-game heroics, Farrell has connected at a 50 percent clip on his 24 three-point shot attempts while Vasturia has collected as many steals (7) as turnovers while playing 147 of a combined 160 game minutes.

After starting 1-for-7 from the field at Pittsburgh, Vasturia has hit 23 of 45 field goal attempts (51.1%).

Aiding the backcourt’s cause each outing is junior forward Bonzie Colson, recording double-digit rebounds in 11 of his last 14 games. He’s collected 111 rebounds against the nine NCAA Tournament-worthy opponents the Irish have faced to date.

Colson’s 8-point output in Thursday’s win at Miami was his first single-digit scoring affair of the season.

NUMBERS OF NOTE

-- Notre Dame has won six consecutive games since dropping two straight vs. defending national champion Villanova and No. 17 Purdue. The Hokies have dropped six straight matchups with the Irish…dating back to 1973.

-- Notre Dame has connected on 13 of 14 free throws and executed 11 defensive stops in 14 crunch time possessions over the last two minutes of ACC games played to date.

“That's four games in a row we've made plays in game situations and had been defensive plays to win a game," said Brey. "We kind of believe that when we're in those situations we're going to figure it out. It certainly is a little bit of a psychological advantage for us now."

-- The Hokies are 10-0 at home this season (included are league wins over Duke and Syracuse) to improve to 17-2 at home since the outset last winter’s conference campaign, a run highlighted by a win over No. 4 Virginia last January.

-- Notre Dame snapped Miami’s 20-game home win streak with its 67-62 win Thursday in Coral Gables.

-- Brey’s Irish have outscored their opponents 35-7 in the final two minutes of the last four games (source ESPN.com). If today’s contest is again decided by the final plays, Notre Dame is fully capable of ruining the afternoon of 10,000 strong inside raucous Cassell Coliseum.

Our hunch is that the proceedings will be decided prior.

O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Virginia Tech 82 Notre Dame 74


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